Pirate Halloween

Us kids had heard about All Hallow’s Eve—that it was a dress-up holiday and we could get free candy if we went door to door.  All the kids at school had been wound up tight, yapping away about it.  All you needed was some imagination and a pillow case to snatch up the loot that seemed littered everywhere in the streets of America.

It seemed like a no-lose social contract.

On the appointed day, I dressed up as a pirate.  I ripped up an old T-shirt and spent a dollar on an eye patch.  I sketched in a nice five o’clock shadow and mustache with an eyeliner pencil.  A red bandana on my head completed the look.

johnny depp pirate 01

Both a sword and a hoop earing were impractical.  I could not hold the sword.  And I did not have a piercing.  “We can make a piercing for you,” my brother told me, describing the cork and needle that would do the job.

Ear piercing

He liked yanking my chain.

My mom made me wear a jacket over the costume because, still, she thought the Los Angeles night was frightfully chilly.  “You’ll die out there in all this cold.”  I remember the disappointment–the hours spent on my costume, now ruined.  A hoop earing, catching the glint of a porch light, might have rescued it—made it recognizable–but, now, it was too late.  We were already out the door, all six of us, a herd.

My mom had told me in great detail about Thai pirates who would board a ship full of Vietnamese refugees—usually small vessels–and steal everybody’s gold and rape the women.  It had not happened to us but it did happen to many friends or friends of friends—enough so that it took on that quality of the legendary and real that is so important for a truly bone chilling tale of terror.

boat people

Now I know that Thai pirates look nothing like those cartoon buccaneers that we think of as romantic.  Modern day pirates are more likely to wear flip flops rather than boots.   But in the stories my mother told me—and for a long time thereafter when hearing of other Vietnamese people’s encounters with pirates—I could only imagine a man in a hoop earring, a bandana and sword, like that Captain Morgan who stands proudly on those bottles of rum.


No matter.  You soon forget whatever you’re supposed to be in the greed that comes of Snickers bars and gold wrapped Almond Rocas.  Adults may ask you “what are you dressed up as” but you know that you are in your heart of hearts a snatcher of candies.  There were six of us out there trick-or-treating and our hearts beat with that one thought of more and more and more.

After a half hour of trick or treating, my mom found us.  She had a panicked look on her face.  Our folks had not taken into account the fact that neighborhood kids would knock on our door, begging for treats.

Trick or treaters on the porch

From candy snatchers to candy recyclers, we became an engine of redistribution.  While five of us trick or treated, one of us served as runner, bringing a sack of candy back to the house and pouring it out on the dining room table to be redistributed to our neighbors. I can laugh at this now but it wasn’t that funny at the time and I did not quite realize that fantastic cosmic joke that was embedded into my costume:  a tribute to the act of piracy.  It has taken three decades of life and only now do I realize how wrong it was—that costume–and how absolutely right it was, too.

Cooking Up a Good Story

“Do you have a signature dish?”  That was one of the first questions my soon-to-be wife asked me when we were starting to date.

I didn’t.  All through my bachelor twenties, I ate out—fun, cheap ethnic foods.  Tacos, ramen, pad thai–they are plentiful in my hometown Los Angeles where they’re considered unremarkable go-to mainstays.  In Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of the exotic:  sea urchin spaghetti; spicy intestine stew; pig’s blood soup; steamed chicken feet—if a newbie friend (some adventurous meat-and-potatoes Midwesterner) were to ask me to help them explore the gustatory riches of my hometown, those dishes–still rather tame–would serve as the gateways to some of the outlandish delights that come from a port city with a history of heavy influxes of immigrants, refugees, tourists from around the world.  That’s the stuff I would suggest simply to get their feet wet.


My go-to lunch dish—a combo–came from my favorite Japanese restaurant, Mishima: black cod, seared with a glisten of ponzu glaze.  It was accompanied by artfully arranged vegetables, steamed tender, and a bowl of soba noodles–purple-brown–that my expatriate Tokyo friends swore was just like home.

I ate this literally every other day.


Maybe you think this could turn out to be an expensive habit–that I’m some kind of trustafarian–but nothing could be further from the truth:  as a grad student living on a shoe-string stipend that put me in a monetary marshland between the distant beachhead of caviar dinners and the riptide of yellow, government cheese poverty, I found this one fact to be a lifesaver I could cling to:  even the poorest among us grad students could always scrape up the couch-cushion change to eat out.

Then, catastrophe struck:  I moved to a small town in the middle of Iowa where salsa was ketchup.  Chinese food involved two categories:  brown sauce and white sauce.  I had to drive an hour to get a bowl of slippery, wet Vietnamese noodles (which I did every week-end) trekking to the exotic armpit that is Des Moines.  Chicago—six hours away and always a small place in my West Coast eyes—suddenly glimmered like Coney Island.chinese-food

Ironically, Iowa was where I began the adventure that was my culinary education—a place where I developed a close relationship with a butcher who hand-selected his animals and looked down on “box meat.”  True full service butchers are called meat lockers in Iowa and this one, tucked into the countryside, displayed rows of pink ribbons from years of first place finishes at the Iowa State fair–the country’s biggest–where you can get a corn dog so big it can only be described as pornographic.

Iowa was where I cut my teeth on the homemade.  It was where I ended up with not only a deep freeze but, also, a special refrigeration unit designed just to house kimchee—that stinky, fermented cabbage that is the mainstay of my wife’s people.  Iowa was where I learned to pickle farm-fresh veggies with fast vinegar concoctions or with slow, probiotic brines.  Iowa was where I discovered the thrill of the Foodsaver.

Of course, writers always think about feeding themselves.  There is a long tradition of food—opulent descriptions of repasts of pheasant under glass—that are lovingly described by those aristocrats of fiction (towering giants like Proust) in whose company I quail.

Scribblers can describe food too well.  This is most probably because food is something they are on the verge of not-having.  Every food description is also an act of wish-fulfillment–the longing for that which you can only dream of having, a girl you see fleetingly (an apparition of true loveliness) through the plate glass barrier across the way on the metro, seated demurely in an A-line skirt on a train going the opposite direction to a destiny that will never be yours to share.

It was at Prairie Lights—the bookstore associated with the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop– that I came across a book of recipes made by high profile writers who had briefly touched down on this corner of the heartland.

Prairie Lights

These were not culinary wonders nor feats of technique.  These were not vegan extravaganzas designed to make one feel ashamed about the levels of pesticides and cruelty in one’s food.  These were not mere exercises in food pornography that prevaricate on the divide that separates the one percent from the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese set.

These were straightforward, homely recipes—one pot wonders—that will keep you going, sustained, not only for a night but several days, like candles that never cease to burn.  These were also parodies of the kinds of recipes that writers have to eat–tongue-in-cheek renditions of the hand-to-mouth.


In his memoir (written while he was hopped up on painkillers) one of my favorite auteurs, John Irving, muses about sitting in his kitchen tending a stock pot as he pens those crazy, thick books of his:  Cider House Rules,  The World According to Garp, New Hampshire Hotel. Writing is just like fussing over a pot of bubbling bones whose essence reduce; and the writing life, it is just like the kind of fussing that is necessary to keep a stock clean and white and bright.

When I tell friends this factoid, they find it hard to believe…because a writer is imagined as a suffering, turtleneck genius that sits in a room, toute-seule, and pulls beautiful geometries like cat’s cradles from the dense molecules of the air, arranging them—and rearranging them–on the gallery wall that is the white space of the page.


Most people don’t realize that writers are truly, to borrow a phrase from Kafka, “hunger artists”–their appetites whetted by oysters they can never have, morsels they braise in their imaginations, and fine cuts of meat they turn over and over in their mind.

Me:  I have left Iowa and returned as a solid home cook who spends as much time looking up the arcana of recipes, as I do sitting at my desk, sharpening pencils as I do my prose.  My protagonist, on the other hand, never left LA; he remains singularly underdeveloped in this capacity–parochial in every sense–and only knows how to make a hotpocket in a toaster; he is a native son who will always be able to order his favorite dish for lunch:  a Vietnamese Sandwich Number 3, extra spicey.

Of his deficiency and his dumb luck, he is none the wiser.

Fight Club!

I’ve been reading Fight Club and pretending that I am on the beach.  I am envisioning my favorite beach in Hawaii—one where the dolphins swim into the protected cove.  The Dolphin Communication People then run into water with fins and masks to greet them; they are paunchy, middle-aged mainlanders from places like San Francisco who want to forge interspecies communication through psychic bonds.  The dolphins always beat a hasty retreat.  And for some reason, this spectacle made reading a pleasure.

Dolphin Communication

If you haven’t read the book, you in all likelihood saw the film.  Fight Club is a story of an unnamed narrator caught in a classic psychomachia (that’s a fancy word for good angel/ bad angel dilemma).  The man is a drudge of postmodern culture, a cog in the wheel of the corporate machinery—a functionary—who knows very well the world of artificial sweeteners, of hotel rooms, of airplanes.  Everybody knows this kind of person (if they are not themselves this person)—someone who is valuable enough to corporate America that their life seems glamorous to everybody but themselves.


These folks—caught in this rat race–tire of this kind of life.  They dread the pre-packaged, artificially-sweetened world it represents.  My brother is this kind of person—a CFO of a successful corporation—who has spent many years, a hermit crab, in the shell of this life.  Whenever he flies, he flies first class (but he hates to fly).

Hermit Crab

Me:  flying is a novelty.  I am a child this way—easily amused by shiny things.  Sure, I sometimes get to go on a trip where everything is comped—an academic conference—but this is still such a novel pleasure that I run around the room, exploring everything:  the snack bar and the room service menu, the small soaps and the chocolates that they lay upon each perfect white pillow.

It is a result of the familiarity with the emotional vacuum of this world that the narrator feels a profound emptiness inside—one that forces him to seek feeling almost as if he were a guerilla rebel.  He goes to Support Groups for those dying of all manner of diseases in order to be able to embrace another human being.  He engages in extreme activities like the Fight Club—a place where men batter each other in order to feel emotionally present.


There is something erotic about the fighting.  Okay, let’s not pussyfoot:  it’s pretty gay.  And this makes sense:  the author Cuck Palahniuk only came out to his reading public many years after the publication of Fight Club.

So woven into this discussion of the general emptiness of postmodern, corporate life—the world of cubicles and apartment loft highrises —is something that is quite the opposite:  not the emptiness of losing touch with your very being but the eroticism of knowing full well that you occupy a body–that your desire (uncontrollable, fugitive, real) must surface like the breaching dolphin in a glassy ocean before it returns to its depth.


Writing Exercise: Debt Crisis of 2013

We are on our fourth day of the DEBT CRISIS OF 2013 and, guess what, everybody is reading:  The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post.  The stock market may be tumbling and our credit rating may go down the tubes, but the silver lining is that literacy is on the rise.  Even if folks are not reading, they’re focused on the one thing that matters: the story.

stock market crash

And this got me thinking about a writing exercise based upon a what-if:  What if that well-oiled plot you’ve been polishing like a souped-up week-end sports car suddenly hit a snag?  Wouldn’t that make for a better story?  Wouldn’t that keep your reader chugging along?

Of course it will.

But that’s not how we learn to write.  We are taught to care for our characters whom we often think of as our own children.  Plots, we are taught, are well-oiled machines that our children simply glide through as they make their way through the stages of life.  Aren’t all children gifted and perfect and sweet?


Henry Fielding, arguably the first English novelist, gives us the prime example of the great plot: his hero Tom Jones moves from adventure to adventure as if he were a literary hobo hopping trains.  But we often forget how well he gets out of snafoos.   And this comes from the fact that he gets out of them so well.

Tom Jones

More contemporary:  McGyver—that guy is consistently put into a jam and somehow extricates himself from a ticking time bomb with paper clips and a toothbrush.  There are reasons why both of these narratives are serialized—doled out in installments.  Their plots must always involve a major fuck-up.  And we love to see (with a childish pleasure) the way a knot becomes un-kinked.

Let’s bring this closer to home and talk about my favorite subject:  myself.  I’m at the point in putting to bed the great adventure of this mystery novel and, as part of this process, I am starting to think about the design of another project—a travel narrative based around my time bumming around third world countries:  it’s a narrative that will allow me to cover a space of roughly 5 years, three of which are spent gallivanting abroad. And as I cast about for interesting material (there is just not enough space to include it all) the incidents that rise to the surface come in the moments when I feel I am trapped, when I have nowhere out, when I have to make do with my wits.

The time I ran out of money in Rio:  I showed up to a bar in the bohemian quarter, stood a few strangers a few drinks, and boldly asked if anybody would rent out a spare room.

The time my wife was turned away as we crossed the border from Peru to Ecuador:  we simply smuggled her in a secret compartment of a chicken bus among similar fugitive souls—young, undocumented Peruvians praying on their rosaries in a darkness illuminated only by lighters that stayed on only long enough to burn their fingers– and, a month later, threaded our way through the Kafka-esque immigration authorities in the capital, Lima, Peru.

The time I was cheated by a tourism agent in Bangkok:  I simply showed up to the office (where everybody covered up for her denied any knowledge of her whereabouts or any relationship to her business) and, taking them at their word that they did not give a rat’s ass about her business, I called them on their bluff; I walked off with the credit card machine, holding it hostage until I got my money back.  Yes, the police were involved.

credit card

These are moments that present a problem and demand a fix.  They also say many revealing things—both flattering and damning—about who I am:  my character.  And they will keep a reader more interested than a description of a mountain or a harbor.

So here is the task:  if you are living under the sequester and have any empathy for the deep inconvenience it has wrought in the lives of the very real humans across America who now cannot get the most basic things done, design a scenario that is equally as shameful, equally as terrible, equally as degrading.  Then sit back and watch how your character gets out of that one.